Bioethics in Transition: Why Academic Conferences Still Matter

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“I was expecting something inspirational and devotional. This was egghead stuff, and not really Christian.” That is a rough paraphrase of a comment from one attendee at our recent summer conference. He may have been anticipating more of a focus on discipleship and inspiration for Christian living, which I enjoy—and would expect—at meetings of organizations dedicated to encouraging Christian physicians and lawyers. Or, he may have thought that plenary speakers would frequently reference biblical texts as the primary content of their presentations, since it was a Christian bioethics conference.

Whatever the case might be, the criticism raises the question: why do we at CBHD bother with designing and hosting academic conferences? This can be illustrated by considering the theme of one of the Center’s recent conferences, Bioethics in Transition.

The familiar ethical questions and issues from the past twenty to forty years have changed, intensifying our need to be aware of the issues for the next twenty to forty years, and the ethical questions they might implicate. The plenary speakers engaged in careful speculation from a variety of perspectives: bioethics across the generations; the definition of death and the bureaucratic procurement of organs; the distinctions between rural and urban healthcare; public policy shifts; and, the noticeable difference between ethical issues and perspectives in the North American/European context, and the rest of the world (whether it is an Asian focus on nature, cosmos, and harmony, or Latin American concerns for human dignity, human rights, and social justice).

These issues did not just suddenly bloom in the research lab. The ideas behind them germinated decades ago. As I am sure you can attest, ideas matter. Ideas have consequences for life and death, and for good and bad ethical decisions. When philosophers argued that some human beings are not persons, these ideas opened the door to creating embryos for research, testing vaccines on orphaned children, and denying certain medical care to mentally impaired people.

Ideas should not go unanswered. It is no excuse to dismiss them as abstractions occurring behind the impregnable walls of the ivory tower. The walls are not impregnable—the ideas seep out.

Ideas can be resisted . . . with better ideas. Debates over what the human body is and who “owns” the body at death have consequences for organ transplantation, gamete harvesting, and withdrawal of treatment, to name a few. But, ownership claims cannot simply be dismissed with the Christian understanding that our body is not our own, that we are bought with a price. Secular academics, for the most part, do not find that claim interesting, let alone persuasive. We must be prepared to engage ideas “from the inside out.” We take the time to understand the perspective of the proponent and identify points of agreement before engaging in rebuttal. (There is seldom an argument where we can find no point of agreement; many bioethical arguments are advanced in support of human health and well-being.)

This kind of careful reflection is what respectable Christian thinkers do. They take ideas seriously, they respond charitably, and they respond credibly. Thoughtful Christian engagement with contemporary challenges requires careful examination, taking time to think through implications, and learning from experts. I have observed this kind of Christian thinking in action since I first began working at The Center for Bioethics & Human Dignity (CBHD). But in all the busyness of life, how can someone who is not an expert keep up with such things, especially with all of the pressing issues arising in medicine, science, and technology that impact our everyday lives?

An academic conference like CBHD’s annual summer conference is an opportunity to hear a variety of ideas within the spectrum of the Christian tradition, and occasionally to be challenged by other charitable voices who do not share all of our faith convictions. It also is an invitation to the audience to evaluate the speakers’ ideas, and to determine which ones make the most sense. While Christians agree on a broad spectrum of issues of our MedTech age, bioethical issues, disputes over some of them—or their implications—do arise. When that happens, we must continue the dialogue, and be willing to defend, or revise, our own conclusions.

A number of plenary speakers have commented how much they appreciate CBHD conferences and the attendees. They sense a unique freedom to express and explore ideas within a Christian context. Our charitable critique is oriented toward the same goal: expanding our understanding of human dignity and human flourishing as creatures made in the image God.

I believe part of our God-given responsibility is to explore all of his creation. That includes the realm of ideas, and their implications for research on improving health and well-being. We should not be shoddy or lazy in our work. We should aim for excellence. To paraphrase a statement by Dr. Milo Rediger, a former president of Taylor University: “being a Christian engaging with issues of our MedTech age should mean more, not less.”

Good academic conferences prompt us to pay close attention. A recent study concluded that even though we say we want “hard news,” that is not what most of us read.[1] We click on stories about the latest YouTube sensation, the World Cup, a tornado, the Miss America pageant, and the ubiquitous cat videos.

So, on your behalf, we host academic conferences, we learn from respected scholars and Christian professionals, people engaged in the trenches of deeply examining the variety of perplexing issues that arise by our developing medical and technological capabilities, and we collaborate to build better ideas. It might not fit the popular ideal of a weekend excursion, but it is important for groups like CBHD to create a space for those of you who are ready and willing to dig into some of the most pressing issues of our MedTech age. Whether it’s through this Intersections forum, pulling resources from our flagship site, or attending our June summer conference, you have a variety of options to help you guide your congregation in wisely facing difficult issues in medicine, science, and technology.


[1] Derek Thompson, “Why Audiences Hate Hard News—and Love Pretending Otherwise,” The Atlantic, June 17, 2014.